My Democratic Dilemma

I don’t recall ever having been so conflicted about a vote than I am about the upcoming general election. This week’s interviews of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn did little to help with that.

As a brief review of the interviews themselves. I think Corbyn came across as quietly and surprisingly firm and upright. He had successfully anticipated the questions from both the audience and from Paxman and gave solid, if obviously rehearsed and briefed, answers. The perception of him in the press is that his policies are popular but his own personal factor is rather less so. Paxman attacked that weakness and went for the personal and tried to drag, sometimes fairly; sometimes unfairly, his already well aired skeletons out of their closets. Comparatively few questions from him were on policy. Corbyn probably came out as well as he could in the face of that.

May, on the other hand, showed why she’s been trying hard to run a Presidential campaign without actually appearing in front of people. Evasive and vague answers to questions and defenses of abysmal policies being literally laughed down. One question which particularly struck me was from the older gentleman who was very upset at the prospect of losing his house to pay for social care. Equally striking that when he was asked about it after the debate he admitted that while he was unhappy with the answer, he’d probably still vote for May. This is the calculation she’s made through this whole election campaign. She knows younger folk won’t vote for her (and – hopefully, from her POV, won’t vote at all) but she’s gambling that older voters won’t NOT vote for her (and will certainly turn out). If either or both of these assumptions turn out to be incorrect, she’ll be in for an abrupt surprise on June 9th. It seems incredible to say but my estimates of the impending Tory majority have dropped from 100+…to 6 points in some recent polls.

The whole debate was neatly summed up in a couple of tweets.

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So why my conflict?

I don’t have a Green candidate to vote for in my constituency. Between cost, the inherent unfairness of FPTP with regard to smaller parties and a few other factors, we don’t have a candidate for the area and so my vote is up for grabs.

If I lived in England and couldn’t vote for the GPEW, it’d be a fair no-brainer. I’m actually excited by much of the Labour manifesto. Items like the program of nationalisation, the National Investment Bank, and their previous support for a scheme to look at a Universal Basic Income (though it hasn’t made it into the actual manifesto) are all policies that the Greens and Common Weal support and advocate for.

This isn’t to say that the manifesto is perfect. There have been compromises there to keep the ever recalcitrant PLP in line. Corbyn has all but admitted that he doesn’t like not being able to change the party stance on Trident and I certainly do not appreciate the manifesto’s stated opposition to Scottish independence. While reports more recently have somewhat softened that, i’d think it likely that he’d go into that negotiation from a stance of either offered Federalisation or finding some other way to try and “buy off” the nationalists rather than support a referendum.

But this isn’t the largest blocker towards my placing my vote in the Labour box. Quite frankly, I don’t trust Scottish Labour and Kezia Dugdale to support anything that Corbyn offers. Certainly not if opposing Corbyn helps them with their sole and over-riding goal of opposing the SNP at every possible avenue. I could believe that Corbyn would seek a coalition with the SNP to oust the Tories. I could equally believe that Dugdale would sabotage it to frustrate Sturgeon.

So my vote should go SNP then? Well…I can’t say I’m entirely impressed with their manifesto. There’s some good stuff in there – commitment to energy grid reform and the general pushback against Austerity is decent – but there’s a lot missing too. The SNP have been clearly outflanked on the National Investment Bank issue. They could have placed a commitment in there on that with the sweetener that they’d push for it in Scotland even if they couldn’t win power in Westminster. As a negative, I don’t like the continued push towards Carbon Capture – especially now that Scotland is free of coal power. As a technology, it’s looking more and more like another distraction from decarbonisation at best and an excuse to develop technology for ever more oil extraction at worst.  The lack of push on corporation tax beyond “opposition to further cuts” is also disappointing.

This last concern brings me to another point. I’m struggling to see the balance between the overall promises to end Austerity and the commitment to “balancing the budget” within the next five years. When asked directly at their manifesto launch about whether these promises were costed, Nicola Sturgeon didn’t give a particularly straight answer. I think the party is still caught in the trap of believing that government deficit spending is a “bad thing” and that we can just grow our way to economic “success”. There are some very good reasons to believe that this economic model is badly flawed.

Overall, this is clearly a manifesto built for a party which knows it can’t win any more seats than it already has and is trying to avoid losing too many. It’s also clearly a manifesto written without much intent of being implemented. The party rhetoric has consistently been one of assuming a Tory majority in which Scotland’s MPs would be ignored.

Away from the national campaign and down to the local I’ve been having a look at who is standing in my own constituency. It’s currently an SNP seat with the Tories in a very distant second. Even if the Tories pick up every single non-SNP voter, they’d still be shy some 7,000 votes. This probably explains why, a week and a half out from the elections, I haven’t seen a single piece of campaign literature from anyone and why my choice of candidates have been…let’s say “less than stellar”. We have the incumbent MP (whom I do like and respect). The Lib Dems and UKIP are both running one of their recently failed council election candidates and, rather more seriously, the Tories and Labour are both running one of their recently ELECTED councilors. I can’t help but think that they’re not taking this election particularly seriously.

So that’s my dilemma. In terms of manifestos, I’m probably most attracted to Labour’s but their opposition to independence and my lack of faith in Scottish Labour’s commitment to their own party is a serious concern. Whilst I’m not quite so enthused by the SNP promises and they look more like a list of nice things than a complete vision of a country, I can more easily believe that they’d work towards them given the chance and that, at heart, they will be thinking of Scotland when making inevitable compromises.

I need to throw things out for advice. To the SNP – I’m yours to lose. Convince me that your numbers add up and you’re trying to build something more than just a list of nice soundbite policies. To Labour – I’m yours to win. Convince me that your party still has a place in politics north of the border.

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the General Election

A Guide to the 2017 General Election

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Once more unto the polls, dear friends, once more.

Thanks to Theresa May’s call for a snap election we find ourselves going again back at the polling stations on June 8th to elect our representatives to the UK parliament, just two years after having done so previously. Time, then, for another of my impartial and non-partisan guides for first time voters or those who have not voted in some time and wish to know how to vote. As with my other voting guides, it will not be the place for this article to lobby for any particular vote. I’ll leave that to other blogs (such as, but not limited to, Scot Goes Pop, Wings Over Scotland and Wilderness of Peace) and to other articles.

Background

Whilst this is a UK wide election, the focus here will be on Scotland as that’s where I am and where I know best. It has been a time of great change in this country over the past decade or so, particularly in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum which saw a great divide in the landscape of the party politics of Scotland and a substantial surge in support for the pro-independence parties. The swing from the 2010 results to the 2015 results were dramatic enough to have carved a place forever in the history books and to have shocked many who were trying to predict the results ahead of time.

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Since then, the rise of the Conservative and Unionist vote in Scotland, largely gained via that party’s cannibalisation of their former allies, Labour and the Lib Dems, has been the talk of the political water fountains. With the SNP sitting about as high as they possibly can in the rankings, most are asking how far their support will or will not erode and who will pick up any seats they may give away.

First: Register To Vote

This is the most important thing. If you are not registered to vote, you cannot vote. There is no “on the day” registration in Scotland and the deadline for the Council elections is 23:59 on May 22nd. If you are registered, you are likely to have received a polling card by now telling you where to vote. If you haven’t or if you know that you are not registered, then information on how to do so is here. Even with the relatively high turnouts seen in Scotland lately, it’s still often the case that more people do not vote than vote for the winning candidate in a seat. Get out and have your say.

Unfortunately, unlike the Scottish Parliamentary elections, the EU elections and the Scottish local elections, this vote is not open to 16 and 17 year olds nor to non-UK, EU citizens. Westminster is yet to catch up with the opening of the electoral franchise to these groups. If you find yourself in this situation the only thing I can suggest is that you lobby your friends and family who can vote to consider your needs along with their own and to continue to demand that things change in future elections.

How To Vote

Of the various election methods used in Scotland’s various elections, the one used in the General Election is both the easiest to explain how to fill out a ballot and the easiest to count and come to a result. For this election, Scotland is split into 59 constituencies as shown below.

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In each of these constituencies several candidates will be vying for your vote. Despite the attention given to the political parties both in the media and in practice within government, technically you will not be voting for a party on your ballot sheet. You will be voting for a person to represent your constituency in the House of Commons and that person may or may not be a member of a party.

When you go to cast your vote, either at the polling station or via a postal vote, you will be presented with a ballot paper which looks something like the one below.

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The candidates will be shown in alphabetical order according to surname and below their name will be shown their registered address and either the name of the party to which their belong (if any) or a slogan chosen by the party which represents something about them. The party’s logo may be shown to the right.

You may cast your vote by placing an X in the box beside your preferred candidate. Do not make any other mark on the paper and do not rank candidates in preference order as you may have done in the council elections as this will invalidate your vote.

Once done, put your ballot in the box and you’re done.

Counting the Votes

Once the polls are closed and the ballot boxes unsealed, it’s time to count the votes and decide who wins each seat.

The General Election is counted using the First Past The Post system, or FPTP. This system has the advantage of being very easy to count and always decides a single winner who will represent that seat.

In this system, the ballots are simply piled according to the X’s and whomever gains the most, even by a single vote, wins. There is no need to win a majority of votes (that is, over 50% of all votes cast) or anything like that. This does lead to the inherent unfairness of FPTP as one can easily see that in a race between, say, four nearly evenly matched candidates, the winner will be the one who receives just slightly over one quarter of all votes cast. In fact, Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP did precisely this in 2015 winning the seat against six other candidates in Belfast South with a total of 24.5% of votes cast and currently holds the record for the lowest winning percentage of votes in a UK General Election.

This allocation of seats means that parties can win a large number of seats based on a relatively small percentage of the overall vote. Since WWII, there hasn’t been a single UK general election where the winning party has received more than 50% of the overall popular vote. When it comes to forming a government, the party with the most seats generally has the first chance to try to do so and, with only a few exceptions, it is generally the case in the UK that the winning party is able to form a majority government and rule alone. The previous Conservative government had a majority government despite only receiving 36.1% of the overall UK vote.

The limits of FPTP also mean that parties which have small but concentrated votes, such as the Lib Dems and the Greens of England and Wales, can receive seats by winning those individual constituencies whereas parties like UKIP can receive a broad level of support across many constituencies without winning any single one of them.

But, for worse or better, that’s the system we’ve got at the moment. I hope this guide helps folk understand it and helps you cast your vote on June 8th. If you haven’t voted before or were planning to not vote, I hope you turn out and have your say.

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We Need To Talk About: A Financial Transaction Tax

“We bailed out the City 10 years ago when the crash came, we poured hundreds of billions of pounds into it. Since then £100bn has been given out in bonuses in the City. So we are asking for a small contribution…to fund our public services.” – John McDonnell MP

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Last night, Labour announced one of their keynote policies ahead of the 2017 General Election. A financial transaction tax on the City of London. Time for a blog to outline just what in the name of Jim it actually is and what it’s supposed to do.

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Council17 – The Aftermath

That’s the council elections done then.

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Well, that’s the voting done. The “fun” bit is going to happen over the next few days as the negotiations work out. Not one of the 32 councils in Scotland have a majority control with major Labour fiefdoms like Glasgow and North and South Lanarkshire all falling to that party’s continuing collapse. Not safe, though, were SNP councils like Dundee which has also slipped out of majority control. The rise of the Conservative and Unionists (who have been benefiting from the second half of their name even in spite of the first) has been remarkable even if all they’ve been doing is cannibalising the other Unionist parties rather than making any substantial gains on the other side of the constitutional divide.

The Greens had a good time of the elections, increasing their seats from 14 to 19. Incidentally, we’re now the largest party on Orkney Council (albeit because all the other councilors are independents). My own branch of South Lanarkshire failed to get any candidates elected although I have to give my personal thanks to the 139 people who placed their trust in me with their 1st preference votes. It was a great experience being a candidate. Who knows. It may not be my last time.

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As it stands now, South Lanarkshire will be represented by 27 SNP councilors, 21 Labour, 14 Conservatives, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Independent. With 33 required for a majority there will now be a weekend of intense negotiations over who goes where. Whilst they’ve lost their control, Labour will now be the kingmakers here. It will be their choice whether they side with a party with whom they share many or most of their values when it comes to local issues or whether they’ll side with a party with whom they share precisely one value over which their councilors will have precisely zero ability to effect.

This will be the story going on in many more councils across Scotland and I cannot predict how they’ll turn out, only that if Labour does decide to ally itself with the Tories one more time for one more stint at short term gain then their final death as a party is inevitable. They will have thrown away their last reason to exist in Scottish politics. And they wouldn’t be missed by many, not even their “allies”, once that happens.
Glasgow will be an interesting story in this regard. With the tally there being 39 SNP, 31 Labour, 8 Conservative and 7 Greens and with 43 needed for a majority there is no possibility of a Labour/Tory Alliance conspiring to keep control of this city. Instead it seems inevitable that the SNP will be the part of control here, it just remains to be seen if they’ll form a formal or informal coalition with Labour or with the Greens to get there. Obviously I’d certainly be hoping for the latter but, as with all in politics, I guess it’ll depend on the price asked by all sides involved. No matter what, Glasgow is ripe for exciting possibilities for change. Too many areas of the city have been neglected for too long and there are great opportunities and assets there just waiting for someone to have the courage to take on the challenge of exploring them. I’d personally like to see something like the Community Buyout scheme recently promoted by Common Weal given a shot. You can read about that here.

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